The end of a nightmare

After a campaign led by Tim and Angela Devlin and fuelled by public opinion, Sheila Bowler has been found not guilty of killing her husband's aunt, writes Claire Veares

Tim Devlin is more used to promoting the law than challenging it. A public relations consultant for the College of Law, he previously acted for the International Bar Association and the Inns of Court School of Law.

But last week he was among those celebrating the release of Sheila Bowler, wrongly convicted for the murder of her husband's aunt, Florence Jackson, who was found drowned in the River Brede, Winchelsea.

Bowler told police that she had left the 89 year-old alone in her car for 30 minutes after realising that a tyre was deflated. When she returned, Florence Jackson had vanished.

For more than four years, Devlin and his wife Angela led the campaign to free Bowler, who was jailed for life in July 1993.

The Devlins have known Bowler for over 15 years. Their daughters had been at school in Rye with Bowler's daughter, Jane. And Tim Devlin was a governor at Battle Abbey School where Bowler taught piano.

A few days after Bowler's conviction Tim and Angela Devlin formed a supporters group the Friends of Sheila Bowler. Initially numbering about 300 people, the group set about trying to find ways of securing Bowler's release.

Among those contacted were the makers of the Channel 4 programme, Trial and Error. David Jessel and the programme team looked into Bowler's case.

In the Trial and Error programme broadcast in September 1994, it was suggested that Aunt Flo may well have been mobile enough to walk the quarter of a mile to the river and her death.

A first appeal against Sheila Bowler's conviction was dismissed in May 1995.

Tim Devlin said: “Television had been the first stage of the campaign, now we concentrated on getting supporters to write to their MPs, to the Home Secretary, and to the C3 unit at the Home Office.”

When the second Trial and Error programme was broadcast in November 1995, it expressed concern about the Appeal Court judgment, the media began to show interest in the case. The supporters' group grew. The Devlins got hundreds of letters, many telling of elderly relatives who had been thought immobile but who had managed to walk surprising distances.

To keep Bowler's morale up the Devlins encouraged people to write to her in prison. Bowler spent a lot of time on the phone and kept the precious phone cards people had sent in with her at all times, even taking them to the bath to ensure they were not stolen.

Efforts to secure a new appeal were stepped up. Expert advice was gained with the help of Ian Newton, a forensic scientist who gave up weeks of his time to assist the campaign. David Martin-Sperry, the junior counsel at the appeal, helped Tim Devlin to build up a dossier on the case.

Dr Jeelani, Aunt Flo's doctor and a prosecution witness in the first trial, wrote a new statement saying that he felt it was quite possible that the old lady had walked to her death.

In February 1997 the case was referred back to the Court of Appeal. In July, Bowler's conviction was quashed and a retrial ordered. Bowler was released on bail and returned to live in Rye.

Tim and Angela Devlin question whether the adversarial system is fair to the defendant in cases like Bowler's, which was based largely on circumstantial evidence. “There is always the danger that someone like Sheila in the witness box may go to pieces,” Tim Devlin says.

At the first trial Bowler managed only to answer questions with one-word answers. Her demeanour seemed cold as she kept her emotions in check. This did not give the jury a favourable impression of her.

In a case where it was a choice between her guilt and something unknown having happened it was likely that a jury would choose the more tangible option.

By the retrial she was less intimidated and able to give a truer picture of herself.

The retrial at the Old Bailey lasted three and a half weeks. As they acquitted Bowler, the jury smiled, and when they saw her leaving the court they applauded her.

Anyone's Nightmare, the Devlins' book about the case will be published shortly.